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HRW Calls On Obama To Reverse 'Damage' Of Bush Years

  • Heather Maher

HRW says that "because the United States itself has abandoned human rights in its counterterrorism policies," this "has sent a message to repressive governments around the world that abuse of human rights is acceptable."

HRW says that "because the United States itself has abandoned human rights in its counterterrorism policies," this "has sent a message to repressive governments around the world that abuse of human rights is acceptable."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has used its annual report to urge the incoming Obama administration to make the protection and defense of human rights the central tenant of its policy decisions on foreign and national affairs.

The group says that is the only way to undo what it calls "the enormous damage of the Bush years."

HRW's London director, Tom Porteous, says President George W. Bush's "war on terror" has been waged without regard for human rights, with the result that many governments around the world have turned a similarly blind eye to the issue.

"The Bush years have been disastrous for human rights because the United States itself has abandoned human rights in its counterterrorism policies," Porteous says. "And this has sent a message to repressive governments around the world that abuse of human rights is acceptable and carries no serious cost. So we are calling on President-elect [Barack] Obama to reverse that."

Porteous calls the last eight years "depressing" for human rights advocates, but says the change of presidential administration is a chance for the United States to regain its global credibility as a leader on rights issues.

With that goal, HRW is calling on Obama to send a clear signal that the United States is abandoning abusive tactics in its counterterrorism efforts.

Those efforts have included interrogation techniques that use methods considered torture under international law, and maintaining a U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where so-called enemy combatants are held without charge and denied due process.

The group is also urging Obama to take a friendlier attitude than Bush did toward the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, possibly even seeking membership on the council and "re-signing" the ICC treaty to show that it has rejoined the global rights community.

No Longer Human Rights Champion

The 2009 report also criticizes governments that pay lip service to human rights in order to gain international credibility, but then ignore or abuse their citizens' rights in domestic policies.

Porteous cited China and Russia as two governments that work actively at the United Nations to undermine international human rights standards so as to protect oppressors and shield abusers.

"These states have all, in different ways, been very active in defending the rights of other states to abuse their people in the name of sovereignty, noninterference, and regional solidarity," Porteous says.

"And because the United States has not been engaged in any of this diplomacy, and because its credibility on human rights has been undermined by its own abuses, this has really left the European Union as sort of the only serious champion of human rights in the world," he adds. "And the European Union, because some of its own interests, and also because of some of its own internal problems, has really not been up to the task of fulfilling that role effectively."

A united EU-U.S. front on human rights abuse, Human Rights Watch says, would present a formidable challenge to abusive governments.

The report cites the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza -- where more than 900 civilians have been killed in fighting between Israel and Hamas -- as underscoring the need for the world to work harder to prevent the human rights abuses that accompany armed conflicts today.

That means the United States must be willing to hold its allies accountable for rights violations. "Above all I think it's important that the Obama administration give a strong indication that it's going to stop turning a blind eye to abuses of its major allies that are being justified in the name of counterterrorism and that would include the abuses of allies in the Middle East, including Israel," Porteous says.

Below are highlights from HRW's 2009 report:

In Iran, Human Rights Watch says President Mahmud Ahmadinejad continues to use "national security" as a reason for crushing dissent. In 2008 there was a dramatic rise in arrests of political activists, academics, journalists, and others for peacefully exercising their rights of free expression and association in Iran, the report says.

Iran 's execution of underage offenders has been widely criticized.
It also cites numerous reports of the torture and mistreatment of such detainees.

The country's judiciary and the Ministry of Intelligence commit most of the country's serious human rights violations, according to the report, which notes that the number of executions increased sharply in 2008. Iranian law allows death sentences for girls as young as 9 and boys as young as 15.

The report says human rights conditions in Iraq remain extremely poor. More than 2.5 million Iraqis have been displaced by the war and those that remain are frequent targets of attacks by Sunni and Shi'ite armed groups. HRW cites reports of widespread torture and abuse in detention facilities, which are run by Iraq's Defense and Interior ministries.

Afghanistan is experiencing its worst violence since the fall of the Taliban government in late 2001, the report says. Widespread human rights abuses, warlordism, and impunity persist. The Taliban has extended its control across parts of the country once considered free and stable.

HRW says the government of President Hamid Karzai lacks the will to institute needed reforms and corruption is rampant. In particular, the report criticizes Karzai for not implementing the Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation, and Justice, which it passed in 2006.

Most strikingly, the report says Afghan women and girls rank among the world's worst-off by most indicators, including maternal mortality, life expectancy, and literacy.

Tajikistan's human rights problems "are numerous and chronic" the rights group says, citing lack of access to justice, due process violations, and ill-treatment in custody.

Though Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has opened the country somewhat, it's still one of the most repressive in the world.
It criticizes the government for exercising what it calls "excessive control over NGOs, religious organizations, political parties, and the media" and notes that authorities in the capital, Dushanbe, are continuing a policy of forcibly and sometimes violently evicting people living in the city center. These dislocated Tajiks are resettled on the city outskirts, sometimes in unsafe buildings, according to HRW.

In the last two years, Turkmenistan's government has begun to reverse the cult of personality that former President Saparmurat Niyazov built around himself, HRW says, citing changes for the better like a new constitution and the abolition of devastating social policies.

But while new President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has ended the country's self-imposed isolation and attracted foreign interest in the country's hydrocarbon resources, Turkmenistan remains one of the most repressive and authoritarian countries, according to the report.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people languish in Turkmen prisons on convictions on politically-motivated charges. HRW says independent activists and journalists in exile are under constant threat of government reprisal, and no independent organization has been permitted to carry out research on human rights abuses inside the country or gain access to detention facilities.

The Uzbek government's human rights record remains abysmal, according to HRW.

During 2008, the authorities continued to suppress independent civil-society activism and religious worship, and to deny accountability for the 2005 Andijon massacre.

Despite this, international pressure on the Uzbek government has actually declined as a result of the partial lifting of European Union sanctions.

Under President Islam Karimov, HRW says the lack of rule of law is a fundamental, structural problem. The judiciary lacks independence and a "deeply entrenched culture of impunity for abuses persists."

The report says local media outlets are not free and the government refuses to accredit foreign journalists, while also blocking access to many websites offering independent information on Uzbekistan and on topics deemed sensitive by the government.

It also says forced child labor in the country's cotton fields remains a key rights concern.

The HRW report takes Russia to task for using cluster bombs in areas populated by civilians during its August 2008 war with Georgia, and for failing to protect civilians in areas under its effective control. The report says its investigators found evidence that members of the South Ossetian militia and armed criminal gangs looted and burned homes, and killed, raped, beat, and threatened civilians in these areas.

Inside Russia, HRW says, the government of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has continued to tighten control over civil society through selective implementation of the law on NGOs, restriction and censure of protected expression and the media, and harassment of activists and human rights defenders.

In Belarus, sometimes called "the last dictatorship in Europe," HRW says authorities continue to use the criminal justice system to control civil society, political opposition, and the media.

The report says in 2008, as in previous years, several opposition activists and journalists were arrested and jailed for participating in unsanctioned protests. Violence was used against some activists and journalists during demonstrations.

HRW notes that Belarus released its last remaining political prisoners in 2008, but at least 10 activists continue to serve "restricted freedom" sentences that permit them only to be at home or at work.

Armenia experienced one of its most serious civil and political rights crises since independence when security forces used excessive force in March 2008 against opposition demonstrators protesting the results of the February presidential election, according to the HRW report.

Testimony from local human rights defenders includes reports of torture and ill-treatment in custody. And journalists, particularly those critical of the government, continue to face politically-motivated charges.

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